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KI leaders incarcerated 6 months

Thursday March 20, 2008

To chants of “Shame on Ontario” and “Shame on government”, six contemnors from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug were escorted to police vehicles and driven to jail.

Justice Patrick Smith sentenced KI Chief Donny Morris, Deputy Chief Jack McKay, Head Coun. Cecilia Begg, councillors Sam McKay and Darryl Sainnawap and band employee Bruce Sakakeep each to six months in jail for contempt of court March 17.

“I find incarceration is the only appropriate sanction,” Smith said in his written decision. “The conduct of all (the) contemnors is flagrant and defiant and will be repeated. This is not a case where a short term of imprisonment is warranted.”

Smith said no option, other than a significant term of incarceration would properly reflect the principles of preventing others from performing the same acts.

“While I understand the principles and beliefs that the respondents (KI members) hold, the sanctity of the system of justice and of the rule of law are paramount and must be protected at all costs,” Smith wrote. “Simply put, there is a clear line in the sand that no segment of society can be allowed to cross.”

The group of six were all found in contempt of court for breaking an Oct. 25 court order, which allowed junior mining exploration company Platinex Inc. to begin exploratory drilling on the Nemeigusabins Arm of Big Trout Lake in KI’s traditional territory.

In blocking the company from accessing the land to drill 24, five-centimetre holes, the group found themselves in contempt of court for what Morris described previously as “protecting the land.”

He said the community members were observing and protecting Aboriginal and treaty rights to proper and require adequate consultation and accommodation prior to mining exploration or development on KI traditional territory. To date, that hasn’t happened, Morris said.

Neal Smitheman, the lawyer representing Platinex in the hearing, said the jail terms could be shortened significantly if the contemnors agreed to no longer interfere with the company.

Chris Reid, who represented the contemnors, said the group of six hasn’t changed its resolve.

“They haven’t changed their minds,” he said. “They don’t view it as contempt. They view it as just defying the court.”

One of the factors that lead to the six-month sentence was the community leadership’s position of defiance and plans to reoffend and continue to interfere with Platinex’s work on the land.

“The most significant aggravating factor to be considered in the cases before the court is the public and open declaration by the contemnors that the order of this court or of any court will not be respected or obeyed if it allows exploration or drilling on its traditional land,” Smith said. “It is the public and open defiance of the rule of law and order of this court that is the most disturbing aspect of this case and which comes perilously close to criminal contempt.

“This case highlights the clash of two very different perspectives and cultures in a struggle over one of Canada’s last remaining frontiers.”

Platinex is seeking economic development of the pristine land and KI is fighting to preserve its traditional land, culture, way of life and core beliefs, Smith explained.

“Each party seeks to protest these interests through an order for injunctive relief,” Smith said.

While Smith was reading his decision to the standing-room-only court gallery, the room became emotionally charged.

When he first mentioned incarceration, several members of the gallery began to weep, realizing they would be away from their friends, family and loved ones for six months.

Following the sentencing, several members of the gallery had choice words for Smitheman.

“You’re not going to gain access to our land this way,” one woman said.

“Sending our chief and leaders to jail isn’t going to accomplish anything,” another said.

Smitheman’s response to both, while shaking his head, was simply “I know.”

Two of the original nine contemnors were spared jail time during the hearing. Evelyn Quequish and Enus McKay decided to obey the court and officially bowed out of the matter.

They each received a suspended sentence of six months in jail.

Smith explained the pair would serve no jail time provided they no longer impede Platinex.

The ninth contemnor – John Cutfeet – attended Monday’s court hearing even though he was not required to do so.

Cutfeet was the only contemnor to defend himself against the charge. The court will hear his matters May 5.

Outside the courtroom, a who’s who of leaders gathered to offer support to KI.

Regional Chief Angus Toulouse, Treaty 3 Ogichidaa Arnold Gardner, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy and Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Wawakapewin Chief Joshua Frogg, Muskrat Dam Chief Vernon Morris, NAN youth council members, a drum group and others held a presence throughout the court hearing.

Following the day’s events, a group of several dozen people held a candlelight vigil at the district jail where Begg is being held in custody.

A sacred fire was lit at the Thunder Bay Regional Correction Centre in honour of the male KI leadership March 18.

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